Designer Insights - Matthew Tolbert: What does accessibility mean to you as a designer?

human centered design, design

As you’re walking throughout your city, you may notice the small ramps, or cuts, into the sidewalks that line the street. You may have pushed a stroller up those sidewalks, or carried a rolling suitcase from a hotel to a parking lot. You may have even used those ramps to move furniture or boxes into your apartment, or used the ramps to take groceries to your car. These ramps, or curb cuts, are now ubiquitous, found in every city and town in the US. It’s assumed that these mini-ramps will be there, and it would be frustrating to go somewhere and be forced to tilt or pick up your stroller, your suitcase, or your grocery cart. These curb cuts, however, didn’t always exist. Prior to 1971, most sidewalks were level and smooth, without indentation or ramps. There were a few cities or towns that had these types of ramps, but they were rare and it was dependent upon an individual business or organization to implement them.

What changed?

There was a real problem that needed a solution. It began with a man named Ed Roberts, a polio victim that was paralyzed from the neck down. He was attending UC Berkeley in the sixties, and was frustrated with the lack of accessibility and the difficulties in traveling across campus and around town. He and some other disabled students began to meet and discuss civil rights and disabilities. The civil rights activism of the era led to real changes throughout the city of Berkeley. Because of the activism of Ed Roberts and others, the city implemented the world’s first curb-cut program in 1971. The policy now required commercial areas to have access for individuals with disabilities.

This solution was effective and helpful for not only those with disabilities, but also for the rest of the population. Everyone benefited from this focus on accessibility. The term curb cut effect was based on this phenomena.

The curb-cut effect states that when you design for accessibility, everyone benefits from the design.

As a designer, you want to make the best solution for the largest range of users. It can be tempting to neglect accessibility and disability needs because it feels like you’re spending a lot of effort on a low impact solution. Designing for accessibility takes more thought, energy, and time and it affects a smaller percentage of users. I have to constantly remind myself, however, of the curb-cut effect. Great accessibility design, if it solves the problem well, will improve the design for everyone.

Here are some examples of how the curb cut effect has been implemented to improve everyone's experience. 

Closed-captioning was a solution for the deaf, but now it’s turned on in noisy restaurants and bars if you want to read the news or watch the game. I personally watch all of my movies and shows with closed captioning turned on because I can't always pinpoint a word or phrase with all of the ambient sounds and the multitude of accents.

Voice control on your phone, your smart home speakers, or even your car was developed as an assistive technology for individuals with limited mobility or eyesight, but now most of us use it on a daily basis. My children (who can't read or write yet) are using voice search to choose their favorite songs from 'Siri' or 'Alexa'. When designers are creating the language for buttons, error messages, 'call-to-actions' and other text in a user interface, the focus on accessibility is essential. Using clear, straightforward, idiom-free language in designs helps our autistic users (who may not appreciate the subtleties of metaphor and simile), but it also has the added benefit of making your product more accessible where English  is not the primary language (and most idioms are culturally specific). In these instances, designing for accessibility made every other user's experience better.

Designing for disabilities means that sometimes we have to sacrifice aesthetics for accessibility. Your designs might not be quite as beautiful, as clever, and as innovative as they could be when planning for accessibility. A thoughtful designer, however, will see the benefit in designing for all users. We have concrete, quantifiable evidence from history that when accessibility becomes a first principle, instead of an afterthought, it has the potential to make every user's experience better.